A Page in Danville History – The Opera House
By: Lynn Reichen
Danville’s Opera House
On July 4, 1871, ground was broken for the most magnificent building on Mill Street, the Opera House.
Danville was on its way to being a show town with several theaters in town but not one was big enough to bring in the finest of entertainment. The years of 1850 to 1880 was a prosperous time for Danville and the citizens wanted a newer and larger facility for entertainment presentations. In 1871, William J Reed purchased ground at the corner of Mill and East Mahoning Streets from local farmer Jacob Snyder. Snyder agreed to invest $6,000 in the building and soon the ‘City Hall Association’ later named the ‘Danville Opera House’, was formed. Charles Wetzel was chosen as architect; Reed did the excavating and provided the brick and stone. The brick used was made on the cider tip near the present location of the Danville Middle School.
In March 1873, Reed sold his interest and retired. Snyder, who had invested everything he had became bankrupt and had to give up the building. The building was publicly sold to one of the original investors, Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company of Philadelphia. Other owners through the years were George Edmondson and brothers Webster & Heister Foust. In 1923 Mr. Edmondson sold out to the Chamberlain Amusement Company who changed the name to the Victoria Theater.
The four-storied building was 145 ½ feet by 75 feet with the final cost approximately $150,000.00. The basement contained the heating and ventilating equipment. The ground floor was occupied by several stores including a tin shop, Hunt’s Drug Store, the Farmers Bank and the post office. The first floor on the Mahoning Street side also housed the Danville newspaper The Montour American and later the Danville Morning News. On the third and fourth floors were offices, lodge and club rooms and apartments. On the third floor Mr. Andrew Russel conducted a Commercial School to help young adults learn office work.
The theater, situated on the second floor opened December 28, 1872. There were 1,400 upholstered, folding opera chairs with an elaborate gas and later electric chandelier hung from the center on the room. Box seats were going for $25, Orchestra seats for $10 and parquet for $5. The first play “Ye Olde Folks” by the ‘Caroline Riching Bernard Company’, was a sell out. The Opera House became a testing ground for new shows, and was the only theater between Philadelphia and Pittsburgh that had enough room for elaborate scenery of the larger productions. Many shows originated in Chicago and played Pittsburgh, Harrisburg and Danville before going on to long runs in New York City. Danville can be proud of the talent brought in to town by this beautiful theater. Performers included Ed Wynn, Carrie Nation, Buffalo Bill, Julia Marlowe and Lillian Russell to name a few. The Christy and the DuMont minstrel shows were annual sellouts with ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ a great favorite with the Danvillians. Performances by local citizens were staged with children seats ranging from 25 cents to 75 cents. However children in their parents’ arms were charged $4.00 to discourage babies who may cause a disturbance. Many movies, shows, conventions, graduations and class plays took place on stage. A platform could be laid over the seats to provide a dance floor. Every event in Danville’s Opera House Theater was a special event. Calling the Opera House “Danville’s most imposing building,” Herbert Wyle, Director of the Opera House orchestra once wrote, “The Opera House afforded more genuine enjoyment to Danville people during its life that any other factor in the Amusement history of the town.”
On March 7, 1931 the final movie performance “The Great Meadow” staring Johnny Mack Brown and Eleanor Boardman was shown. The children in town were glad to learn that the new Ritz Theater which was opening across the street would continue to show the next exciting chapter of the serial “The Indians are Coming!”.
The once majestic Opera House was razed in 1937, an end of a 64 year run. Through the years the Opera House saw changes from demure ladies with bustles to men wearing handlebar moustaches to the flappers and their short skirts. Ulysses S. Grant was president in 1871, the Model T Ford was introduced in 1908 and Franklin D. Roosevelt was president in 1937. The present Danville Post Office building now sits on the site of this historic building, the Opera House just a memory of Danville’s Golden Era.
Sources: History of Montour County 1769-1969 by Fred W. Diehl
My Danville by Arthur T. Foulke
Bi-centennial Gazette article by Eleanor L. Deutsch